Lockdown

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  December 14, 2006

Other states control reporters’ access to prisoners, especially Supermax inmates. For example, Massachusetts and New Hampshire require interviews be monitored or observed, but neither state attempts to control the subject matter or content of media interviews — or news stories written based on them — and neither demands to review notes or recordings from an interview, though both reserve the right to search notebooks or equipment for “contraband” items.

Governor John Baldacci was asked to respond to these restrictions on reporting, but he did not reply.

So the Baldacci administration has effectively banned me from the prison.

Obstructing the press

061215_inside_prisonsuit
BEHIND BARS: Deane Brown.
And now that Magnusson has sent Brown out of state (the commissioner says he personally made the decision), I have discovered that officials of the Maryland prison system, run by Mary Ann Saar, a former Maine associate corrections commissioner, won’t return my calls or e-mails to set up a visit to see Brown.

In other words, obstructions to coverage have been erected at every turn.

According to Denise Lord, associate commissioner, the Corrections Department won’t discuss individual prisoners because of “confidentiality” — even though, in Brown’s case, I have a signed release from him — and because of the ongoing investigations of the Rideout suicide and the alleged breakout attempt. Actually, her first words to me on Brown’s transfer were, “We’re not going to share information” about why he was sent to Maryland “because we’re not going to.”

Recently, my request to the department to see documents pertaining to Supermax policies and several inmates and employees, made under Maine’s Freedom of Access (freedom of information) law, have been almost totally denied by an assistant attorney general, Diane Sleek. To take the next step to try to see these documents, I would have to sue in Superior Court.

Ryan Rideout killed himself on October 5. Authorities at first suggested the investigation would take only a short while. Several weeks ago, State Police Lieutenant Gary Wright said the investigation had been “pretty much complete” for some time. But it lingers on, and its report remains undisclosed to the public. Recently, phone messages left for Lieutenant Wright went unanswered.

Williams, Brown’s attorney, says of such a delay by authorities: “They have a right to preclude the media during a limited period of time. These investigations should be done by now, and they should be allowing reporters back in.”

Now I feel I know a little of what it is like working as a reporter in a totalitarian state.

Control is a disease
In Maine, the lonely job of preventing torture to these outcasts, and gaining public access to them and their environment, rests largely with a few lawyers, particularly the very few who defend indigent prison inmates for a taxpayer-paid $50 an hour.

“The idea that you would prevent suicides by being concerned about the mental health of prisoners is not something they consider,” says attorney Joseph Steinberger, of Rockland, about correctional officials. The alternative they have chosen, putting mentally ill, suicidal people in solitary confinement, he finds simply “crazy.” To the prison mentality, “suicidal behavior is punishable behavior,” he says with amazement.

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